Academic Law Librarianship


Jacob Sayward

Academic law libraries have much in common with their non-law counterparts. Many of the elements of collection development, including the systems, the tools, and the skills are shared. Yet there are enough distinctions between the mission of a law school and the mission of a college or university to affect how their respective libraries go about doing the work of building their collections.

This chapter focuses on those distinctions, assuming the reader either has some background on collection development in other academic libraries or can fill in any gaps through other sources.

Key Concepts
  • Academic law library collection development models differ from the collection development models of non-law libraries.
  • Accreditation requirements for law schools and specific characteristics of legal materials collected affect collection development.
  • A collection development policy drafted by a law school today might differ from traditional collection development policies for non-law libraries.

Traditional Collection Development Models

To develop a collection, a library needs to make decisions about what to acquire. The decision might come down to an individual evaluating the specific details of a particular title to acquire. Alternatively, it could result from the establishment of parameters to be used for the automated acquisition of a large number of items (as in an approval plan). Either way, a library needs some criteria for making the acquisition decision. Traditional criteria have included subject, cost, and format of the material being acquired, and within the field of law we may consider jurisdiction to be separate criteria from subject. The individual authors or publishers behind a specific title may affect an acquisition decision, acting as a proxy for the title’s authoritative value or appeal to researchers. The criteria have grown more complicated with the development of online collections. In the past, the cost decision may have simply come down to a single list price for a book (or annual subscription price for a serial publication). Now there may be multiple prices to consider for print versus electronic format, or for the cost of a yearly subscription to a database versus a perpetual license (with annual maintenance fees) for the same online content. Formats have also become more complicated and taken on new meaning with the development of online resources. Online materials may be favored over print for reasons related to declining library space, convenience of management, and preference of researchers. There are a lot of criteria to consider, and libraries need someone to evaluate and balance them to make an acquisition decision.

Traditionally, if an academic library had enough resources, these decisions were made by a number of subject experts known as “selectors .” These selectors reviewed potential acquisitions and selected those they wanted purchased. Having multiple selectors allowed the library to divide up the world of potential acquisitions by different categories, with different selectors concentrating on their own fiefdoms. A benefit of this approach was that selectors’ decisions may be informed not only by their experience as selectors but also by their other responsibilities as librarians. If a selector helped a patron research a particular topic in the previous year, that may help the selector make a better decision about purchasing a title on that topic when it comes up as a potential acquisition. A version of this benefit flowed in the other direction, too. A librarian called on to assist with research on a particular subject would be extremely well informed on the materials on that subject, both available in that library’s collection as well potentially available at other libraries, if she had been that subject’s designated selector for a number of years.

Some law school libraries with greater collections budgets adopted multi-selector models just like these. Their selectors divided up their individual portfolios by subject area, or jurisdiction (in the case of foreign, comparative, and international law librarians), or even by format (with some librarians focusing on electronic resources). Nevertheless, academic law libraries that intended to mimic the multi-selector model as much as possible still had to deal with collection development complications that are specific to the discipline of law. Accreditation requirements specific to law schools play an outsized role in collection development for law school libraries. The distinction between a legal information publication intended for scholars and a publication intended for practitioners is an important one for the different patron bases and missions of different law school libraries.

Collection Development Today

Over time, non-law academic libraries evolved to embrace different systems beyond the traditional selector model to evaluate potential acquisitions for their collections. Today, decisions still have to be made about what to acquire, but libraries may have more or fewer people involved in that decision-making process. In one library, limited resources may leave all acquisitions decisions in the hands of a single librarian, acting as a lone selector. Another library may regularly lock its entire complement of librarians in a room, reviewing one title after another to make a collective purchase decision. Non-librarian support staff may be making decisions based on their interpretation of a collection development policy. An approval plan may have been set up long ago, with those old parameters functionally deciding what is being acquired a generation later. Patrons may be directly responsible for what is purchased due to a demand-driven acquisitions program. Many libraries will employ several of these systems, sometimes even to supplement a traditional multi-selector model. Over time, different libraries shifted their reliance on some of these systems to others, based on their changing staffs, budgets, and collection priorities.

All of these developments applied to law school libraries as well, with different implementation of these elements to fit their varied needs. In addition to embracing some of the same evolving collection tools and systems used by non-law libraries, academic law libraries also had to respond to changes specific to legal information publishing, law schools, and the practices of different legal researchers. Changes in accreditation standards for law schools have had significant changes on law school library collections. Changes in the type of research law faculty conduct affected the emphases of library collections.

Accreditation Requirements

The national accrediting body for law schools in the United States is the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar. This body is responsible for the ongoing compliance with its requirements by the roughly 200 ABA-approved law schools currently operating. These schools are required to report annual statistics on their status and operations, including their library’s collections. In addition to this annual reporting, ABA-approved law schools undergo site visits every decade, which involve more thorough reporting and inspection to ensure compliance with ABA requirements. Most ABA-approved law schools are also members of the American Association of Law Schools. The AALS runs its own reporting and also takes part in the ABA site visits.

Law school  accreditation requirements include language on libraries and their collections. Some of this language has been very explicit about what a library must have in its collection. This left little discretion to libraries and their selectors; they had to purchase what was spelled out for them. Other requirements language has been vaguer, allowing libraries to take different approaches to satisfy their different interpretations of these requirements. Most of this language was valued by academic law library directors, as they could point to it when discussing the importance of library collections budgets with other law school administrators. In this way, the accreditation requirements were a useful tool in advocating for law school support of a library.

Both the language of ABA requirements and libraries’ interpretations of the language have evolved over several decades. The trends have included less specificity in what libraries must have in their collections, as well as less reliance on print materials to satisfy the law school’s needs. Related to these trends is the growing concern on the part of libraries that the accreditors charged with enforcing these requirements are paying less attention to library collections during their site visits and while drafting their post-visit reports. While in the past a requirement for a robust collection may have been an effective tool employed by a library director to extract a correspondingly robust library budget from  a law school administration, trends toward looser requirements and lax enforcement could be interpreted as an invitation for law school administrations to neglect investing in their libraries. A newly established law school fifty years ago may have concluded the easiest way to comply with accreditation requirements was to put enough money toward its library to ensure its collection looked just like the collections at older, established law schools. A newly established law school today might instead try to get away with simply pointing to its Lexis and Westlaw subscriptions as having satisfied most of its law school’s research needs.

Simultaneously, today’s looser accreditation requirements give libraries and their selectors more flexibility in how they spend the collections budgets they have. If less must be allocated towards acquisitions simply to fulfill accreditation requirements, more could be spent on other collections priorities (or, depending on how flexible a library’s budget may be, on non-collections priorities of the library).

Today, the ABA accreditation requirements pertaining to library collections are unlikely to be consulted or considered very frequently by librarians and staff involved in collection development. These requirements are most likely to come up when drafting or revising a collection development policy when preparing for a law school’s periodic ABA site visits, or by a library director who still hopes they will prove useful while making an argument for library collections funding.

Legal Materials Collected

As in many other fields, law schools place a heavy emphasis on the importance of scholarship and publication for their faculty. The result is that a law professor’s work may appear in any of the hundreds of law reviews being published by law schools in the United States, or it could show up in a law journal published by private publishers or other organizations. A law professor might author a scholarly monograph published by the same type of university press that would publish a non-law scholar. A law professor may instead publish regular or irregular updated editions of a treatise or deskbook primarily marketed toward practicing attorneys. The law school library’s collection will have to support the research of its faculty, regardless of what form the individual publication efforts take. For some faculty members, this research will begin and end with their Westlaw and Lexis accounts. As long as the library ensures that access continues, the job is done. Other faculty members will require more intense research support, and it will take healthy library collections to meet their needs.

Besides research to support faculty publications, the law school library will have to support its student body’s research. Whether for their paper-oriented seminar courses (law students usually have to take at least one before graduating) or for their own attempts to be published in their school law reviews, students will conduct research that resembles faculty research in the sources consulted. Students will also conduct research as part of any legal research training they undertake, whether part of a formal course or a less formal workshop. Law students may also conduct legal research as part of their work in a law clinic, an externship, or another program within the law school designed to simulate the practice of an attorney. For legal research instruction and these experiential courses, the research needs will resemble those of an attorney more than those of most law professors. This adds another mission to the law school library’s collection, beyond supporting scholarship.

When a student or faculty member wants to research legal scholarship, they will need access to law journals and scholarly monographs on legal subjects. With the ever-rising emphasis on interdisciplinary research, they may also need access to non-law journals and non-law scholarly monographs. Most law school libraries will provide coverage to many American law journals through subscription databases like Westlaw, Lexis, and HeinOnline. For researchers who need access to non-law journals, a law school library may rely on the law school’s parent university library’s journal subscriptions to meet many of those needs (this option would be unavailable to the “independent” law school that has no affiliation with a larger university). Inevitably, researchers will need access to articles from law and non-law journals unavailable through those methods, whether due to the journal’s obscurity, expense, foreign origin, or other factors. A library wanting to support access to such publications may initiate a print subscription, arrange for online access on a less-common platform, or even rely on interlibrary loan access to individual articles published by the journal as needed. For scholarly monographs, law school libraries can usually collect using methods similar to their non-law equivalents.

Some researchers may need access to more narrowly focused databases, publications, datasets, and other resources. Law school libraries often acquire these esoteric resources reactively (in response to a specific researcher’s request) instead of proactively. After a particular research project has been completed, or the specific patron who requested access has retired or otherwise left the law school, the library may cancel access to such a specialized resource as it anticipates little future usage by other researchers.

While these materials all have their non-law analogies in other academic libraries, the primary law, and other practitioner-oriented materials that law school libraries collect are significantly different. With these, the law school library resembles a law firm’s library more than that of a college or university.

Large portions of law school library budget and space were traditionally devoted to collections of primary law from the federal government, state governments, and (to a lesser extent) local governments and foreign governments. Some of these libraries invested in a greater number of jurisdictions than others, but primary law was a significant emphasis. Between relaxed accreditation standards, shrinking budgets and space, and more reliance on Lexis and Westlaw for access to case law, statutes, and regulations, academic law libraries are collecting less primary law in print. Even sources of primary law from municipal governments or foreign governments are less likely to be collected in print due to improved availability of these materials on government websites.

The secondary sources used by attorneys for their research have included treatises, legal encyclopedias, looseleaf services, and other practitioner-oriented materials. These are often published by vendors specializing in the legal market, like Lexis, Thomson Reuters, Wolters Kluwer, or Bloomberg. While these vendors have worked with law school libraries for many decades, their main sources of revenue are law firms. Their products and sales models are most responsive to the needs of law firms, so acquiring them for an academic law library can be a very different process from acquiring other types of materials.

Both primary law publications and these practitioner-oriented secondary materials may take the form of serials, integrating resources, or other continuations because the law is always changing. In non-law libraries, the serial publications that are collected may be limited to newspapers, magazines, and journals. In a law school library, where primary law publications and these other practitioner-oriented materials may be a large majority of the print collection, the library is spending its resources on materials that are constantly being updated. The subscriptions and standing orders necessary to keep an up-to-date collection on a particular jurisdiction’s laws or the law in a particular subject area eats up a much larger part of the collections budget than a library primarily collecting the relatively simple and cheap monograph. The costs of keeping such materials up-to-date plays an important role in decisions about acquiring or canceling subscriptions for these materials.

The gradual shift from print collections toward online collections is something shared by both non-law academic libraries and law school libraries, but even this is more complicated on the law side. Online journals and ebook versions of scholarly monographs may be collected similarly by both types of institutions (they are sometimes even shared on the same platform). Still, for law school libraries, the online sources for primary law and practitioner-oriented materials are more complicated due to their updating nature. The most commonly used research platforms for these materials, Lexis and Westlaw, were developed separately from the ebook platforms used for scholarly monographs, and research within the same sources also bears much less resemblance to their print counterparts than one would experience in, say, a non-law ebook platform. This makes the question of when to cancel a print resource to rely on its closest online equivalent a much more complicated question in law libraries. Many more factors must be weighed when deciding what needs to be collected in print, what needs can be satisfied by these common legal research platforms, and what will require other options like specialized databases.


Shortly after Mary moved from a university library to start work as Collection Development Librarian at a law school, a pandemic resulted in students being cut off from the library’s physical collection. After the Dean of Students emphasized the importance of supporting struggling students in the classroom, Mary wanted to get students access to study aids in electronic format. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find ebook versions for most study aids on any of the larger ebook aggregators with which she was familiar. She had to reach out to the legal information publishers responsible for the most common law school study aids and arrange for access via each of their proprietary platforms. None of those vendors allowed Mary’s library to purchase the study aids outright, instead only allowing annual subscriptions. So Mary not only had to find money her library’s collection development budget right away, but she also knew she’d have to continue to budget for these online study aids every fiscal year as long as she wanted her school’s students to have access.

Collection Development Policies

Law school collection development policies traditionally resembled the collection development policies of other academic libraries in many ways. They would often include language on the library’s mission, acquisition practices, and a general description of the collection. While many non-law collection development policies featured long lists of disciplines (e.g., accounting to zoology), with each receiving a numerical assignment suggesting how heavy the library would collect in that subject area, academic law libraries would have their own long lists of subject areas within law. Each of these subjects (e.g., admiralty law to zoning law and practice) would be assigned its own numerical grade suggesting how heavily the law school library would collect in that area.

Such a list would be a very limited approach to describing a law school library’s collection practices, so law school library collection development policies would contain additional sections. They would often run through federal and state jurisdictions, indicating which of the most common primary law publications and secondary sources were to be collected in print from those jurisdictions. Sometimes, these sections would also contain additional sections to describe their collection of foreign, comparative, and international law materials. Within the structure of the collection development policies, sections like these would usually follow any introductory section and precede the list of subject areas within law.

By being specific about individual titles, these traditional collection development policies had the opportunity to give a much more detailed sense of current collection practices. A major downside was that many minor changes, like a single subscription cancellation, would render the policy outdated and in need of revision to stay current. Most law school libraries would go years between revisions of their policies, assuring that they were always out of date with respect to some of these specific subscriptions. Between shrinking budgets and the shifts to online resources, the collection development policy had little chance of keeping up.

A growing trend in the collection development policies of law school libraries is a conscious effort to be less specific about individual subscriptions and individual legal subjects. Instead, more modern collection development policies would attempt to describe the trends of their collections. Instead of listing every legal subject, it might outline a few factors the library would consider when deciding whether a subject should be collected heavily (e.g., the law school has an institute or center focusing on the subject). Instead of describing which primary law publications are collected in each jurisdiction, the collection development policy might simply state that fewer and fewer of these subscriptions would continue and that most of them would be concentrated in the law school’s home state. These collection development policies will not give as detailed a description of a library’s activity, but they can give even greater insight into how the library makes all of its collection development decisions. This should allow the policy to predict collection development decisions even if it has not been updated in a number of years.

  1. Fundamentals of Collection Development Policy and Management, by Peggy Johnson (Chicago: ALA Editions, 2018).
  2. Finding the Middle Ground in Collection Development: How Academic Law Libraries Can Shape Their Collections in the Response to the Call for More Practice-Oriented Legal Education, by Leslie A. Street and Amanda M. Runyon (102 Law Libr. J. 399-440, 2010).
  3. Evolution and Opportunity: Collection Development of Skills-Specific Resources in the Wake of the ABA’s Revised Standards, by Lee Sims (108 Law Libr. J. 251-278, 2016).


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Introduction to Law Librarianship Copyright © 2021 by Jacob Sayward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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